Johnson's World: Mind Your Manners

Do you have the courage to examine the manners and courtesy of your employees?

July 1, 2016
Steve Johnson10773449

The owner of a printing company was concerned about his firm’s low hit rate, and he instructed his sales manager to do something about it.

Hit rate, as I hope those of you in business know, is the ratio of estimates requested to orders placed. The ultimate hit rate is 1:1, meaning that every estimate turns into an order. A hit rate like that indicates that your prices are too low, but at the opposite end of the spectrum (where many printers lie) is an underperforming hit rate where lots of estimates are prepared but few of them turn into work.

The kneejerk reaction to this problem is to conclude that prices are too high, but in this case the owner wasn’t buying this oversimplification.

He instructed his sales manager to dig deeper. Thus, the sales manager’s customer’s satisfaction form was born. It was a well-intended idea. If we don’t know why customers aren’t giving us the order, why not ask the customers themselves?

The devil is always in the details. The form asked a few questions, mostly along the lines of “was the price too high?”

I wanted to add a question asking about the courtesy and professionalism of the salesperson. The sales manager would have none of it. Our sales team was comprised of professionals, he reasoned. They couldn’t possibly be the problem.

I disagreed. The sales team was indeed a bunch of professionals. It seemed to me unfortunate that their collective knowledge of the graphic arts was obscured by their back-slapping, joke-telling, used car salesman-like approach to customer service. The sales manager himself reminded me of 1950’s television comedian Sid Caesar.

The form died a quiet death, and the estimate hit rate remained unsatisfactory. I still think the sales manager’s thinking was flawed. He strongly believed that while the manners of the customer’s point of contact mattered in retail and service businesses, such as restaurants, in business to business transaction, customer satisfaction was determined solely by quality, service, price, blah, blah, blah.

Balderdash. Million and billion dollar industrial deals are easily torpedoed by rudeness, as surely as a $5 transaction at McDonalds or Ace Hardware.

I recently returned from several weeks in Japan. Everyone is probably aware that the Japanese place great importance on manners, but spending a few weeks inland reminded me of just how ingrained politeness and etiquette are in Japanese society.

The difference between Asian and North American manners really struck home to me not so much during my visit as upon my return to the United States.

As soon as I disembarked in Los Angeles I experience culture shock from the American workers I encountered. After two weeks of bowing, polite titles, and respectful intonations it was jarring to once again experience the attitude of bored indifference that seems to pervade the workforce culture of some large American companies.

I chose my airline based upon direct access to one of the less popular Japanese airports. My choices were limited. American culture in general and American Airlines in specific would agree with my old sales manager that the airline I chose had earned my business by flying me to and from the place I wanted to go.

Surveys of fliers might seem to bear this out, confirming that travelers see little difference between the service and friendliness of domestic airlines (they dislike them all) so they base their ticket purchases on price and nearness to destination.

That doesn’t “fly” in the global economy. Asian-based airlines such as Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines stress and successfully deliver eastern-style polite and respectful customer service. That, combined with global coverage and good on-time records is chipping away at the international market share of American-based airlines.

Back to the old sales manager and his distain for courtesy and politeness. He sincerely believed the old saw about delivering the right combination of quality, service, and price. Everyone is willing to offer all three of the above, so it will take more to differentiate you from your competition.

Do you have the courage to examine the manners and courtesy of your employees, including delivery and accounting staff? Do you have the honesty to look at your own behavior?

I courteously and respectfully suggest that you do.